When he was elected L.A. County Sheriff in 2014, Jim McDonnell faced a tall order. He was the first sheriff in 100 years to come from outside the department and anyone who didn’t come up through the ranks was suspect. This wasn’t half of it—the L.A. Sheriff’s department was disgraced and on its knees. Former Sheriff (Lee Baca) and the Undersheriff (Paul Tanaka) would soon be on their way to prison, morale had hit rock bottom, and the department was in utter chaos. A few years earlier in 2012, McDonnell had seen it coming as a member of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence. The Commission’s report left little doubt of the corruption, so McDonnell knew what he was getting into.
The events that shamed the department are told by Topanga’s own Celeste Fremon in “Downfall,” an article in LA Magazine. Fremon writes of rampant violence and racism with deputies beating inmates, drug smuggling, obstructing justice by hiding an undercover informant from the FBI, and more.
In 2013, as he unsealed 18 federal indictments against Sheriff’s employees, U.S. Attorney Andrè Birotte said, “These incidents did not take place in a vacuum. In fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized…some members of the sheriff’s department considered themselves to be above the law.”
Lawsuits ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It was clearly a department out of control.
Conditions called for someone who could reform the department from top to bottom and Jim McDonnell was elected to do it. I’ve known McDonnell for 25 years since he was a young community-policing lieutenant in the LAPD when I was doing a study of the department. As I got to know McDonnell I was struck by the widespread respect and admiration that cops and community leaders held for him.
As McDonnell was promoted up through the ranks to become the department’s number two man he never used his power to bully others. He was tough when he needed to be, but he brought out the good in people around him. McDonnell and I became friends and from 2008-2011, we taught a popular course on police and society—an experience that gave me deeper insight into his character. The UCLA students evaluated McDonnell highly, noting that he presented a “new face of law enforcement” and that he “would always make time for us.” We taught until McDonnell became Chief of the Long Beach Police Department before he decided to run for sheriff.
After McDonnell was elected he appointed me to an unpaid position on the Inmate Welfare Commission that allocates funds for inmates, where I had an inside view of this massive department. Its 9,700 sworn officers police an astounding 4,057 square miles—more than 10 times the size of the LAPD’s geography. It has a staggering array of responsibilities, from patrolling the unincorporated portions of L.A. County and the 42 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s department for policing and more. It also has the dubious honor of running the largest jail system in the nation. About 18,000 men and women are incarcerated in its seven jails at any one time and the “Twin Towers” jail is the largest mental health facility in the country.
Once elected, McDonnell stepped into the morass and put together a new management team. He added more than 2,000 new deputies (screened from thousands of applicants), introduced use-of-force and de-escalation training in the jails, established a Human Trafficking bureau to protect vulnerable young people, supported the first Civilian Oversight Commission, and provided public access to data on the use of force, and deputy-involved shootings.
His leadership is bearing fruit: A recent Department of Justice investigation found there had been a “sea change” inside the jails with both complaints and use of force down. A few months ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that serious use of force in the jails are “almost nonexistent.” Not only are the jails safer, but the areas patrolled by L.A. Sheriffs have seen a 16 percent drop in homicides. McDonnell has also increased jail time for crimes committed with guns. Slowly but surely the department has begun to reestablish trust with the community.
Not surprisingly, McDonnell’s reelection is endorsed by a stellar list of community leaders. Though the union that represents the rank and file endorsed his opponent, a retired lieutenant with no command experience, the Police Officers Association that represents sergeants and lieutenants, the future leadership of the department, endorsed McDonnell.
In the L.A. Times endorsement of McDonnell, the editors write, “The Sheriffs Department needs someone at the top with command experience in law enforcement and McDonnell has it.”
However you decide, please vote on November 6.
Buzz Wilms is a 31-year Topanga resident and emeritus professor at UCLA. His newest book, “Blind to Injustice and How I Learned to See: eight years on the streets with the LAPD and the people,” will be published in 2019.
By Buzz Wilms